As I write, I am about to deliver my final class in the terrorism and international security course for the term. There are different ways to approach this topic. It could proceed as originally planned and bring the course on terrorism and international security back home to consider terrorism in, and its effects on, Canada. In an ideal world, it would bring the different strands of the course together in a succinct lecture and seminar discussion. Or it could take a snapshot of the last 30 days and attempt to apply theory and evidence to the most recent events and make the abstract concrete.
Whichever route is taken, it cannot focus on a single attack or incident: knife attacks in Jerusalem (Nov. 23) or London, U.K. (Dec. 5), armed assault in Paris (Nov. 13), suicide bombings in Beirut (Nov. 12), in Zaria, Nigeria (Nov. 27) in Tunis (Nov. 24), fire-bombings in Bangladesh (Dec. 5), gun attacks in Colorado Springs, (Nov. 27), San Bernardino, (Dec. 2), and on Nov. 15 against a Black Lives Matter protest, as well as too many hoax calls and threats, including the wave in Quebec on Nov. 3.
We could examine arrests related to terrorism – now almost daily in the United Kingdom – and those of Jewish extremists suspected of “belonging to a Jewish terrorist organization,” according to official Israeli sources, or those in Malaysia, Kenya, Tunis and elsewhere. All the above is before we turn our focus on the dominant region: Syria and Iraq.
Each attack was different in its execution and formation. Paris was clearly a planned and co-ordinated armed assault using automatic weapons and homemade explosives. So was Bamako. The London stabbings appear to be a lone actor with a knife. Beirut was a co-ordinated and planned suicide attack. Right wing extremism and terrorism feature dominantly in the United States, although the U.S. media is less likely to call it terrorism. San Bernardino at first looked like workplace violence: terrorism only emerged as a factor over the following days.
So, organized groups, small cells, those trained by groups, and those merely inspired by them. Right wing, religious, other and, as always with terrorism, the unknown. Explosives, firearms, knives, incendiary devices. From 129 dead to no deaths. Even this snapshot should reduce the temptation to focus on an incident and extrapolate from it. What does Paris, Beirut, Colorado Springs, London, Tunis, Zaria, Bamako and everywhere else mean?
In Canada we can tell ourselves, correctly, that terrorism in Western democratic states is unusual and, as a consequence, we should not be “terrorized” or overreact and erode civil liberties or lash out in response. We have statistical evidence to demonstrate its low incidence, low lethality rates, as well as historical and contemporary examples of the dangers of overreaction. We can tell ourselves, correctly, that it is not a specific religious or political belief that is the cause of radicalization to violence in individual perpetrators, but something about “them” as individuals (personality and/or circumstance) that needs to be discovered or understood as the tipping point to violence, or something about the system or society that lies at the root of the cause, or the dynamics and influence of the group – tangible and intangible, real and virtual – that mattered.
More likely, we will tell ourselves whatever we want to, because something about the attack – whichever you choose to focus on or recall – or the perpetrator, or the response by the authorities, will resonate with existing political beliefs and preferred ways of interpreting the world. You will be able to anchor your beliefs with easy recall of something, and counter views, evidence, and indicators will be ignored or pushed aside.
The issue here is that we will take away from even the incomplete list of attacks above – from November 2015 to date – what we want to. Nothing will really change and we will use the incident or the response to it as evidence for pushing our particular agendas, policy preferences and politics.
Isolated incidents of terrorism do not terrorize populations. It takes a concerted campaign to do that. But they do politicize issues and make them salient. A response is required. The propaganda by deed works. So what does the attack mean? Whatever you want or think it means: and therein one of the central problems of terrorism. It affects our thinking, understanding, and actions, even though it rarely ever achieves its strategic or ultimate objectives, because it kills people and it erodes normalcy.
Jez Littlewood is an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.